The Photographic ObjectA Conversation with James Hyman
"This is why I think it is important to consider the print itself. There’s a difference between seeing something that’s a few inches square on your phone versus three metres across on a gallery wall. The scale of it, the presence and the rarity are important."
James Hyman is an art collector and dealer, a published art historian with a doctorate from the Courtauld Institute of Art, and owner and curator of the James Hyman Gallery on Saville Row, London. Together with his wife Claire, he has amassed a collection of over 3,000 art works, including French salt prints and early 20th century pieces, but with a particular focus on British photography from the 1840s to the present. Having published their photography collection online in 2015, and actively lending their work to museums across the world, James and Claire are committed to upholding British photography’s position and promoting it to an international audience.
The Hyman Collection’s latest collaboration is an exhibition with the Hepworth Wakefield art gallery in West Yorkshire. Titled Modern Nature, the show features around 60 photographs exclusively from the collection, and includes work by leading British photographers such as Shirley Baker, Bill Brandt, Anna Fox, Chris Shaw, Martin Parr and Tony Ray-Jones. The images date from the end of the Second World War to the 21st century, and have been arranged to examine Britain’s changing relationship with nature during this time.
From a shaded veranda in the south of France, James Hyman discusses photography, its status as an art object, and the exhibition at the Hepworth Wakefield.
Cereal: What first drew you to photography?
James Hyman: The work of André Kertész inspired me early on. I liked the idea that you could walk along the street, and simply because of the way you viewed it, you could turn it into something interesting. Cartier-Bresson, André Kertész, Robert Frank, and Walker Evans are people I would consider to be artists, but they were essentially street photographers. To me, especially as a student of Art History, their work has the spirit of Baudelaire and impressionist Paris – or Paul Éluard and the surrealists – the way they wandered the streets and responded to modern life, seeing things in a different way.
What I love about photography is that the creative process is in your eye, and the immediacy that comes from that; you either get it or you don’t. Painting, which I’ve engaged with a great deal over the years, is so different. You can spend days, weeks or months working and reworking a picture, which makes it another kind of object altogether at the end of that process. You retain the evidence of all the labour that went into it. In a way, the challenge with photography is that there’s no trace of that labour.
What do you look for in a photograph?
JH: I look for something that has an extraordinary quality as an object, and that alters my perception of the world in some way. For example, on display at the Hepworth Wakefield exhibition, there is a series of photographs that Stephen Gill captured around the area where the Millennium Stadium was being built, that he then buried in the ground, so the pictures have been distressed by natural processes. I am interested in images, but equally so in the thoughts and processes behind them. What appeals to me about vintage and early photography is that there is still a handmade feeling to it. The chemicals may have been slopped on; the paper used might have been a piece of writing paper that was to hand. Photographs like that are art objects; they are not just the images they contain.
A key challenge for photographers today is to treat their work not just as a means of capturing an image of the world around them, but as a considered artwork. In a way, it’s too easy now. Taking a photograph no longer has to be a laborious process, and conversely that makes it harder than ever to be a photographer. A photograph is, in essence, a mechanical reproduction. How do you then create something that engages an audience as an object? How are you going to stand out in the age of Instagram? Looking at a single art work – whether it is a photograph or a painting – and trying to understand it, requires a very different attitude to time than scrolling through hundreds of images on an iPhone.
This is why I think it is important to consider the print itself. There’s a difference between seeing something that’s a few inches square on your phone versus three metres across on a gallery wall. The scale of it, the presence and the rarity are important. In Britain, museums do not always have a good history of showing photographic art works, unlike museums in the US, France, or Germany. This is what we are trying to address with exhibitions like the one at the Hepworth Wakefield.
What makes the Hepworth Wakefield exhibition unique?
JH: The Hyman Collection lends a lot of works internationally. There have been various shows where we’ve been the main lender, and usually, I have been involved in the curation. The show at Hepworth Wakefield is the first time in Britain where we’ve exhibited work exclusively from the collection. Moreover, with this show, I thought it would be interesting to hand the curation over to the Hepworth. If you give the job of curating to someone else, you gain a whole new perspective, particularly when the collection is so large and therefore open to reinterpretation.
What did you think of the Hepworth’s proposal for an exhibition on the theme of British landscapes?
JH: I found curator Nicola Freeman’s approach very refreshing. Since Romanticism onwards there has been an attachment to the perceived purity of the countryside versus the corruption of the city. The city is seen as a place of industry, vice and decadence, in contrast to the natural, unblemished countryside. But Nicola wanted to complicate that conventional interpretation. She suggested looking at the border between the country and the town. This is a more confused area where nature seeps into the city, and tourism and industry expand into rural areas. For example, there is a photograph in the show by Keith Arnatt, titled Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, which depicts a tourist spot covered in rubbish. In that series of the same name, he demonstrates how we often fail to respect the very natural environment that we idealise. Elsewhere, Nicola has grouped together works by Shirley Baker and Mark Power that have abandoned, ruined cars as their subject matter. Consequently, there are interesting conceptual dimensions to the show, but at the same time it is visually strong and accessible. People are really responding to it. The work is communicating something to them, and that is exciting for me to see – the direct connection between the photographs and the audience.